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How much sleep do children really need?

14th February 2012

Children do not get enough sleep, and this situation may have begun at least a century ago, according to a recent Australian study.

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However, there is scant evidence on which to base a recommendation.

Researchers found that, from a sample of 32 papers making definite quantitative recommendations about the amount of sleep people should get, only one paper actually involved a scientific study.

There were a few hundred other papers involving sleep, some dating back more than a hundred years, offering scientifically valuable information about the amount of sleep people got.

Today, sleep experts are still unsure exactly how much sleep children should get.

Most of the recommendations are based on estimates, and do not take interrupted sleep into account.

Lead researcher Lisa Anne Matricciani, of the University of South Australia in Adelaide, and her colleagues, said that while there was a common belief that children were not getting enough sleep, and that children's total sleep time had been declining, very little scientific work had taken place.

They wrote that, no matter how much sleep children were getting, it had always been assumed that they needed more.

In the late 19th century, doctors were already recommending that parents and children get half an hour more sleep than they commonly did during that era.

David Gozal, an expert in childhood sleep problems at the University of Chicago, said that researchers needed diligence, and that they needed to put in the effort of measuring sleep in a large group of the population.

He said that researchers simply needed to find out what was normal, a thing which had never been done before, and that loss of sleep had a tangible effect on society.

For the study, the researchers examined 218 articles involving self-reported amounts of sleep.

Based on these studies, the researchers estimated that the amount of sleep children got has fallen by 73 minutes over the course of 100 years.

But recommended sleep times also dropped by a nearly equal amount.

At the same time, the amount of sleep people imagined they got was 37 minutes less than the amount of sleep they actually got.

Gozal said that, because physicians were influenced by changing societal expectations the same as everybody else, such figures often only reflected parental expectations.

He said that, however, the concern that children did not get enough sleep was a real one, and that whenever parents woke up children instead of letting them wake up by themselves, that was probably a less-than-ideal situation.



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